Originally published Oct. 11, 2012.
Paul Craig is looking for the guys who were chasing the guys who were stealing the horses.
It's a chase that Craig, who's been immersing himself in history for about as long as he's been grown up, has been involved in since stumbling across the National Horse Thief Detective Association about a decade ago.
A friend was refurbishing an old school house in southern Wells County, and that school house just happened to be the only building in all of Indiana that was ever owned by any chapter of the said association.
The two-story building housed a one-room school on its first floor and a grange hall upstairs, which the HTDA also used for its meetings. The school eventually closed and the grange (a largely agricultural organization) stopped meeting, and the building was deeded over to the Chester Jackson Horse Thief Detective Association.
There were still some artifacts from the HTDA associated with the building, and Craig was hooked.
"I kind of like keeping history alive," says Craig. "It fascinates me."
(Craig got involved in Civil War re-enactments shortly after he got married; he admits to lighting real candles on his Victorian Christmas tree to give it an authentic flavor; and he's been known to make public appearances dressed as a Civil War-era surgeon.)
Craig, who doesn't do his history half-way, set off for the Indiana State Library to look up state laws pertaining to the HTDA. He became acquainted with an Auburn attorney who is a leading historian on the association.
And he became convinced that the history of the Horse Thief Detective Association, an organization dedicated to protecting what official law enforcement agencies could not, is becoming lost because of what he says is an unfair association of the HTDA with the Ku Klux Klan.
In its waning years, Craig says, the HTDA was infiltrated by the Klan, an action which hastened the end of the organization. The Klan infiltration also threatens to erase the HTDA from the area's history, he says.
"Today, if your grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, you're not going to tell anybody," Craig says.
Because of the Klan association, he says, neither will anyone own up to having ancestors who were involved in the HTDA.
Craig wants to make sure that history is not lost.
"It was a volunteer police force," he says of the HTDA. "A sheriff and two deputies on horseback can't possibly patrol the whole county. But six companies of 50 people each gives you 300 sets of eyes."
And unlike the sheriff, HTDA members could chase a thief across county lines.
The southern Huntington County community of Warren had one of the first local HTDA chapters, Craig says. A race track in Warren drew horses from across the area; thieves could easily ride the interurban from neighboring cities, steal the horses, and hide them in Wells County caves - where the Huntington County sheriff couldn't look.
The National Horse Thief Detective Association, which was widespread throughout Indiana, was one of several similar associations that sprang up throughout the United
States, Craig says. The first HTDA chapters were organized in the Hoosier state in about 1845. State laws regulating the association - and giving its members arrest powers - went on the books in 1848.
Those laws were what drew the Klan's attention, Craig says. Klan leaders wanted those powers, he says, and Klan members started infiltrating the HTDA to get them.
In 1928, he says, the group dropped the "Horse Thief" from its name, becoming the National Detective Association, in an attempt to rid itself of the Klan association.
The name change didn't work. By 1933, Indiana lawmakers had repealed all laws that gave the HTDA law enforcement powers.
"It was done to keep anybody like (Indiana Klan leader) D.C. Stephenson to ever take advantage of those laws again," Craig says.
Craig has notebook after notebook of photocopied information on the National Horse Thief Detective Agency, gleaned from libraries and museum archives across the state.
"I hate to guess how many days I have spent in the courthouse going through their records," he says.
He has badges worn by HTDA members, varying in design and size as they evolved from chapter to chapter and year to year.
"A lot of people are going to have a badge, and they wonder, ‘What does that mean?' If you've got the badge and have never heard of them, you don't know," Craig says. "There are surely some of those badges laying around in Huntington County."
He has buggy markers, meant to be nailed to a buggy to signify that the buggy's owner is a member of the HTDA.
"If you steal that buggy, you're in deep doo-doo because that buggy has half a dozen marks you're not even aware of," Craig explains.
He has books and ribbons from the HTDA's annual state conventions, including the one that was held Oct 1 and 2, 1929, in Huntington's Hotel LaFontaine. The chamber of commerce, he says, supplied cars for a tour of the city; a dinner was served to 300 members at Central Christian Church.
He'd like to have more HTDA artifacts, or at least photographs or photocopies of them, and asks anyone willing to share to contact him at 228-1000.
"The main thing I'm trying to push is the county histories," he says. "I've got leads on other stuff that's coming in. Hopefully, at one point, it can be made part of the library or a museum."